Who Is the Biggest Superstar in the NFL?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 15, 2013

The NFL's biggest superstar is—and pretty much always has been—a quarterback. That much we know. Beyond that, though, things become nuanced, subjective and complicated. There are more star quarterbacks playing now than ever before, creating a deep group of American sports idols. 

That group currently includes Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. (35), Peyton Williams Manning (37), Andrew Christopher Brees (34), Aaron Charles Rodgers (29), Benjamin Todd Roethlisberger Sr. (31), Elisha Nelson Manning (32), Matthew Thomas Ryan (27), Cameron Jerrell Newton (24) and new club members Joseph Vincent Flacco (28), Andrew Austen Luck (23), Robert Lee Griffin III (23), Colin Rand Kaepernick (25) and Russell Carrington Wilson (24). 

Who's the club president? The debate regarding which star shines brightest comes down to the three most senior members of said club—Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints.

The Manning-Brady debate has raged for over a decade now, with Brees emerging in the last five or six years to become a sleeper (if there is such a thing in the world of superstardom). 

What's fascinating is that, aside from being really good quarterbacks, all three are so different from one another. Manning and Brady are easily the most famous football players of their generation, but they're polar opposites off the field. And then there's Brees, who is almost a hybrid of the two, both possessing and lacking traits that both Brady and Manning have brought to the table.

Let's break down the recipe that has turned all three into superstars and establish why, from this perspective, Tom Brady might have an edge over everyone else. 


Define superstar

Merriam-Webster defines a superstar as "a star (as in sports or the movies) who is considered extremely talented, has great public appeal, and can usually command a high salary."

Understood. So knowing already that Manning, Brady and Brees are the three highest-earning active players in the NFL, this boils down to which player has the top combination of talent and public appeal. 

But there's also something very subjective about this whole "superstar" thing. Close your eyes and think of an archetypical superstar and you're likely to wind up with someone resembling Brady rather than Manning or Brees.

Brady's the GQ cover boy with the supermodel wife and the Los Angeles mansion that features an actual moat.

Brady's a California boy living in Boston. Manning is a southern boy living in the Midwest. Brees is a southern boy living in the south. 

Brady's got three Super Bowl rings, which is more than Manning and Brees combined. He's a heartthrob who also happens to dominate on the field, putting up elite numbers while winning games. 

While your average American sports fan probably can't relate to any of these guys, it's true that it's probably easier to feel a connection to Manning and/or Brees than it is to feel one with Brady. That might not mean much, however, because superstardom isn't something you associate with relatability. 

But, possibly as a result of that relatability, Manning and Brees are bigger endorsers. Manning has the personality, while Brees has become one of the most likable athletes in the world. And so, if superstars are determined by the eye of the beholder and if relatability leads to more exposure, this becomes a more complicated discussion. 

How abstract is this debate? In late November, Bleacher Report named its top 50 sports stars of 2012. Brady wasn't on the list, while Manning was in the top 25. About 10 weeks later, ESPN SportsNation asked fans to rank the biggest stars in sports. Brady came in third place, while Manning wasn't even listed as one of the 10 candidates. 


Turns out you can measure fame (and that everybody loves Drew)

In a recent Nielsen/E-Poll Market Research survey spotlighted by Forbes, Brees was found to be the second-most liked NFL player in the country, trailing only Troy Polamalu. Manning came in fourth, while Brady was out of the top 10. 

In a separate Nielsen poll from earlier this month, Brees was found to be just as influential as Manning, but the major difference was that 56 percent of those surveyed were "aware" of Manning, while only 31 percent were "aware" of Brees. (Tim Tebow was found, in that poll, to be more influential than both.)

With that in mind, it's far from surprising that Manning made more money from endorsements than Brees and Brady combined between July 2011 and July 2012, according to Forbes.

But Brees, who played such an important role as the city of New Orleans recovered from Hurricane Katrina in 2006 and beyond, puts up one hell of a fight off the field.

The Davie-Brown Index (DBI), which quantifies consumer perceptions of celebrities or brands based on a series of attributes, has determined that Brees is both the most influential and aspirational figure in sports, which is a little shocking considering he's only got the one Super Bowl appearance and he plays in smallish New Orleans. But he's also tops in the endorser category, and is first among NFL players in terms of appeal. 

The DBI also gives Manning a sizable edge over Brady in terms of celebrity power. Here's a breakdown: 

  • According to the DBI, Manning is slightly better known than Brady, but both fall short of Tim Tebow and Michael Vick, both of whom have gained national attention for various, unique reasons that span beyond the field. 
  • Manning is about as well known nationally as Katy Perry, Larry Bird, Bono and Jimmy Kimmel, while Brady is about as well known as Gordon Ramsey, Joe Namath, Vince Vaughn and the late Joe Paterno.
  • About 85 percent of those who know Manning like him, while only 75 percent feel the same way about Brady. Among the 3,000 celebrities in the DBI's database, that puts Manning 728th, while Brady is back in the 2,261st spot. 
  • In terms of influence, Brees is tops, followed by Manning, and then Robert Griffin III and Aaron Rodgers are also ahead of Brady. Chris Anderson, who is the director of agency communications at the Marketing Arm and who shared this information with Bleacher Report, says that Manning's "influence score is in the same neighborhood as Tom Hanks, Hugh Jackman, Denzel Washington and Will Smith."
  • Manning is the 21st top endorser in the country (right there with Michael Jordan), while Brady is 119th (with Mike Rowe, Warren Buffett and Phil Mickelson).
  • In terms of trendsetting, Manning ranks 66th, Brady 199th. Manning sets trends like Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and LeBron James, while Brady is in the Natalie Portman/Seth MacFarlane/Will Ferrell range. 

And then there's the good old-fashioned Q score, which determines, based on representative samples, how highly regarded celebrities or brands are. The Spring 2013 Sports Q Study, which was released in April, found that Manning is America's favorite athlete, despite the fact more sports fans are aware of Brady. 

According to numbers provided to Bleacher Report by the Q Scores Company, 33 percent of those surveyed said that Manning is one of their favorite athletes (resulting in a Q score of 33), which was five points higher than Brady despite the fact 85 percent of fans were aware of the Patriots quarterback, compared to 83 percent for Manning. Even Brees has a higher Q score than Brady (29 to 28) despite only earning an awareness rating of 74. 

Q Scores Company executive vice president Henry Schafer says that Brady never had a step on Manning, and that the two were "neck and neck" during the time in which Brady's Patriots won three Super Bowls in a four-year span. 

So while Brady might live like the bigger superstar, Manning and Brees have bigger reputations and more lucrative brand names than he does. And what separates the latter two is that Manning has gained a lot more general exposure than his New Orleans-based counterpart. 

The Gisele factor

You'd have to think that, at least internationally, Brady has seen his superstar status grow as a result of having a world-famous wife. He married Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen in 2009 and the two swiftly became the world's highest-paid celebrity couple, according to Forbes

And believe it or not, Bündchen is the breadwinner. Based on numbers from Forbes, the 32-year-old model makes more than double Brady's salary. You don't become a celebrity simply by being married to a megastar, but there are certainly a lot of people worldwide who only know Brady as Gisele's husband. 

Sadly, that factors into the formula used to determine how big of a superstar Brady is. It might not have anything to do with his talents, personal earnings or his commercial appeal, but it increases his public appeal. 


The Tennessee factor

But Manning also gains points by possessing some key accomplishments that both Brady and Brees can't include on their respective résumés. Brady was never the big man on campus at Michigan and Brees didn't get a ton of attention at Purdue. Neither was a first-round pick.

But Manning was deified at Tennessee, where he was a Heisman runner-up and became the No. 1 overall pick of the 1998 draft. He was a consensus All-American and the SEC Player of the Year in 1997, leading the Volunteers to the Citrus Bowl in his senior season.

Surely, having the unconditional and undying support of one of the largest and most rabid fanbases in college football has helped Manning's superstar cause. 


Who has the edge on the field? (And watch out for Aaron)

Because we all know these guys are first-ballot Hall of Famers, we've gone 1,600 words without really discussing football. But the first piece of criteria required for superstardom is extreme talent.

We could debate for days over which of these guys is more talented than the other, and now there's room for guys like Rodgers, Eli Manning and Matt Ryan. But it's tough to draw conclusions regarding talent and on-field accomplishments, especially when the final chapters have yet to be written for all of the quarterbacks in question.

In his 2013 NFL 1000 quarterback rankings for Bleacher Report, Matt Miller placed Brady first, Manning third and Brees fifth, with Rodgers and Ryan in the two and four spots, respectively.

We're still waiting on NFL Network's 2013 rankings, which are determined by the players themselves, but when all three of our top candidates were last healthy in the spring of 2011, Brady was first, Manning was second and Brees was ninth. Last year, Brees climbed to second, Brady dropped to fourth and Manning fell to 50th because he missed the entire season due to a neck injury. 

However, CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco released his latest list Tuesday, with Manning one spot ahead of Brady in fourth and Brees back in 12th after a tough year sans Sean Payton in New Orleans. 

The consensus seems to be that Rodgers has moved into the top spot when it comes to on-field performances only, which is a good indication that the Green Bay Packers quarterback will eventually become the league's top superstar. Rodgers is only beginning to make his mark on Q score and DBI lists as his exposure grows from endorsements with State Farm, Pizza Hut, Ford and Wheaties.

Still, let's include him as we break down the statistical accomplishments of the game's top superstar quarterbacks.

When you pull all of that together, Rodgers has a big stats advantage but the sample size is very small for him. Brady's numbers are right there with Manning's and might even be slightly better than Brees', but the major difference is that Manning has won more than Brees and Brady has won a lot more than all of them. 

This brings us back to that classic debate regarding how much credit quarterbacks should get for wins in a team sport. The Patriots have supported Brady better than the Colts did Manning, and Bill Belichick might be the greatest coach the game's ever seen. 

Regardless, Brady has found a way to start five Super Bowls, which is something only he and John Elway have accomplished. Playing on that stage that often is bound to boost your superstar stock. Manning has probably done more with less, but those are the breaks. 


Who do you want to be when you grow up?

Let's forget about the tangible stuff one more time before opening up the debate in the comments section. If you were a 10-year-old football fan and you didn't have an allegiance to the above players or their teams, who would you most like to become? 

This is what it boils down to: Who do we envy the most?

This, of course, sheds more light on why superstardom is tough to measure. Some of us would go for Manning's laid-back, football-dominated life; others might choose to be a local legend like Brees; many would surely elect to adopt Brady's Hollywood lifestyle. 

Ultimately, while Manning might break more records and Brees might be the most lovable player in football, Brady's four trophies (three Lombardis and one Gisele) might end that debate. 


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